Relating, Creating, Transforming

Mark 1:29-34a

29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32 That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

I’m inspired periodically by those of you with the courage to be yourselves.

I mean it—most people are not themselves. In fact, we spend most of our lives trying to fit into other people’s categories or playing characters we think others have written for us to play.

Image result for be yourselfThere are lots of reasons for this—psychological, emotional, physical, and cognitive. As humans, we are constantly creating and re-creating reality as we see it and feel it and how we think about it as individuals. We are not stuck with one framework of our human existence; on the contrary, we are moving through stages and developing new frameworks. Though we often assume such things are true about human existence when we are children and youth, this re-framing of our identity and the world can and does continue throughout adulthood.

So allow me to return to what I said at the very start: I’m encouraged, inspired by people with the courage to be themselves.

The reason I say that is because there seems to be so much around us that discourages this framing and re-framing of self, and of this expressing of a self that is truer to who we are. There seem to be more boxes these days for people to try to fit into. All this does is make us feel inadequate, anxious, or sad. At our core I do think we wish to be free—free to change/adapt/evolve in our own way—to express ourselves as we are.

Perhaps part of the problem with the society that we have created is that, overall, it is a society based on specializations and not the whole self. If you are a teacher, for example, you are specialized/categorized according to the subject you teach or age group/academic level/demographic you deal with. As a “teacher” you are not a teacher of the whole; in other words, you are not expected to consider the spiritual, mental, physical, emotional, and social state of each student. You are charged with teaching a subject or a theme and hopefully you will see certain outcomes in the student’s learning. The same goes for many doctors, care practitioners, clergy, and therapists, who increasingly specialize. I am not making a judgment either way, just observing. We rarely focus on the whole person. The whole self.

There is fragmentation.

Image result for fragmentation of selfAnd I think that this fragmentation in society contributes to a fragmentation of self. In other words, if most structures and social groups around you are very specialized and categorized, you had better be specialized and categorized also, if you hope to fit in. For example, most religious communities are homogeneous—people in those communities tend to vote for the same political candidates, look similar, speak the same language, etc.

I’ll continue to speak out against this, because I think this is where churches and other religious institutions have failed. We’re not meant to create fragmented and homogeneous communities, we’re meant to embrace the differences and uniqueness of each other, wherever we are on life’s journey. That’s what makes this community special and courageous to me.

Case in point—in the faith community I work with some of them do not identify with one particular gender. Some are in transition. Others identify with various parts of the sexuality spectrum. Some people identify as Black, or as African-American, and some don’t. Among our partners and members some identify as Mexican, or Latin American or Latino or Latinx, some don’t. Some identify as Korean or Filipino or Asian-American. Some don’t. Some identify with a particular religious tradition and say I’m Muslim, or Hindu, or Jewish, or Jain, Sikh, Christian, Baha’i, or Hare Krishna. Or I’m agnostic, secular humanist, Wiccan or otherwise.

Actually, if we step back and think about it, why is this even an issue?

So what? There are some of us who don’t identify with the gender given at birth. Okay. So what? There are some of us who are attracted to males, or to females, or to both. Okay. So what? Some of us don’t’ really identify as any specific gender. All right. So what? Some of us don’t identify ourselves by skin color or nationality or religion, and some do. Okay. The only reason this IS an issue, friends, is because we’ve stopped thinking about our whole humanity and we’ve specialized and made categories that we must fit into. Without those “required” categories, we wouldn’t care how someone identified themselves or didn’t.

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And that leads me to another Gospel story where we find Jesus of Nazareth encountering someone in need of healing, in need of restoration to her true self. She was categorized, too. She is Simon’s Mother-in-law and that’s all we get. She’s a woman, and so, her name isn’t given in the story. She has a fever and is laid up in bed. Jesus goes to her, takes her by the hand and lifts her up. The fever leaves her and she begins to serve. Well, by “serve” the text means show hospitality to Jesus and those who accompanied him. It was a cultural rule to serve food and drink to those who had traveled distances to your home. At first glance, this story may seem easy pickings for those who want to preach about women being silent in churches and homemakers above all else. But a closer look at the Greek [and our own bias] may help. First, she is “healed” but the word in Greek translates to “made whole.” The woman is made whole again. She is restored to her true self. When she is made whole, she engages in showing hospitality to Jesus and his followers. Again, this is not some statement about gender and more a cultural expression of what one does when one is grateful or visited by strangers.

See, our bias wants the woman to fit neatly into a gender or cultural role. But really, none of the people Jesus heals in the Gospel stories fit neatly into our categories. So I ask, what if this woman, and all the others who were made whole, were just humans, like any of us? What if this fever-ridden woman was just a human who, when Jesus met her, was taken by the hand, lifted up, and made whole? And what if we sought to do the same with others right now? Friends, there is so much courage, beauty, and encouragement in the lives of people who are seeking to be themselves, even when it’s difficult or not accepted, or the norm. For when we accept someone on their own journey, we also start to see the possibilities we have for evolving, for changing, for being our whole selves.

So whether you’re in the process of transition, or you’re laid up in bed, or if you need a hand to lift you up, or if you’re feeling empty and heavy because you just don’t feel like yourself—know this—you are not made to fit into a box or a category. You are you. And that “you” will keep framing and re-framing and that’s a good thing. And those along your journey of self-discovery who laugh, cry, and celebrate with you not only help and love you, but they are positively impacted by your courage to keep journeying forward.

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Love Builds Up

Mark 1:21-39

Let’s talk demons, afflictions, identity and love.

Cool with you?

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Okay, first, a story about Jesus of Nazareth. He’s making his way to Capernaum–perhaps the most important and well-connected community in the region of Galilee. There was a temple there, and Jesus was about to darken its door. Mark’s Gospel is the speed Gospel, going right to the point. Jesus has already been baptized by John, has experienced temptation in the wilderness, and then he formed new community by calling fishermen. Now, after all that in just a few verses, Jesus moves on to engage the religious authorities of the Jewish synagogue in Capernaum. On the Sabbath, Jesus started to teach within the temple walls. The “they” in this case probably refers to the people in general—those who were present to receive a teaching. But they didn’t expect this action-oriented teaching they were about to get.

For something strange then happened. Something out of the Exorcist maybe? A man, in the synagogue, cried out. He was unclean, with a spirit inside him. What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.

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For sure, the people had to be a little freaked out.

But oh, it wasn’t over. Be silent, and come out of him! Jesus spoke with authority. And then, the unclean spirit left the man after much convulsing and crying out. Okay, yes, Mark tells us, the people were freaked out and amazed by this. What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him. People all of a sudden didn’t care that Jesus was from Nazareth or some so-called sh&thole country.

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Just then, the people didn’t care about Jesus’ place of origin. Go figure. They liked what they heard and saw. They saw him doing something good and forgot about their prejudice. Hmmm…..

Let’s get this out of the way. Demon possession? It’s something reserved for horror movies or superstition, right? It’s the scary story my conservative youth group leader use to tell us as teenagers about some kid she claimed was possessed by the devil and then cured by the prayers said by church leaders. Yes, that really happened. It was a religious anecdote meant to scare us into the fear of God and steer us away from the many, many things that tempt teenagers and well—everyone. Is that what we’re talking about here?

No, this is not a story about fear or scaring people into certain moral choices.

This is about healing.

Pure and simple. Healing. You see, in Jesus’ time and in ours, there were and are many people afflicted by disease, illness, mental anguish, depression, and loneliness. There are many suffering from addictions, OCD, attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, chemical imbalance, genetic tendency, etc., etc. What Jesus healed [and the disciples, too] was affliction—and not something out of a Hollywood movie. People were possessed by unclean spirits that did not allow them to live their lives. Sometimes those unclean spirits were physical ailments; sometimes mental afflictions; sometimes, lifestyle habits; other times, vicious family cycles; sometimes injustice, oppression, or discrimination. But the demons were real. And today, they are still real.

Because people [and governments] still deny a person’s full humanity. They tell them that they are lesser, unworthy, or unnatural. There are lots of reasons why, they say—based on a person’s gender identity or expression; who they love; the color of their skin; what language they speak; what religion they practice; where they grew up or how much money they have. This denial of a person’s true self causes terrible anxiety and depression in people whose beauty deserves to be seen and recognized.

Those who demonize others don’t bless, they curse. They ban people from hospitality and refuge. They use religions and politics to hide behind their prejudice and hate. They tear down instead of building up. There are even those in today’s society who quote Bible passages and even mention Jesus in their hateful rhetoric against certain people and then are conveniently silent when people are unjustly treated.

But Jesus and those who followed him told a different story. Healing was accessible to all—even if they were poor, marginalized, unclean, or forgotten. Jesus recognized that poverty, sickness, injustice, and the denial of someone’s humanity were systemic problems. Even he could not solve this in a blink of an eye or a healing touch. But he could heal one person in her own context, listening to her story, and offering whatever kind of healing touch she needed. It’s like Paul said in his letter to the church in Corinth, you can gain all the knowledge you want, and that’s great, but it is love that builds something. Love builds something.

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Why do we need to create accepting, affirming, raw-messy-beautiful communities? Because it’s needed. Healing doesn’t happen overnight. And sadly, far too many religions and governments deny some people’s full humanity. So community is needed—a community that loves and heals together. See, we can claim to know this or that about Jesus or God or whatever, but that knowledge takes us only so far. Eventually, we are tasked with acting out of love. Because there will always be people standing outside our gates, or entering in, who need healing of some kind. We can shower them with knowledge and prayers but that’s not enough and sometimes it’s not relevant. But love is always relevant. Love builds up. It is the one thing in this mess of a world that makes any sense.

Progress and Purpose

Mark 1:14-20

Free-yourselfSometimes we see ourselves as only what others tell us, or what the world tells us. Are we just our jobs? Are we just defined by appearance? Are we meant to fit into other people’s boxes?

Or, are we invited to be ourselves in a free-flowing, surprising way? Are we invited to follow the movement of a freeing, creative Spirit that moves us to love and to be loved?

At times, we can feel like we are stumbling around in the dark, and discovering ourselves is difficult. We can feel like Jean Valjean in the story of Les Miserables, asking Who am I and starting out by defining self as the numbers [24601] that society gives us, or the names we are called.

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And so, life can seem monotonous and also heavy, particularly if we feel bombarded/overwhelmed by society’s expectations for us. I think most of us want to believe that we are on a journey, but it can be hard sometimes to sense progress or even know where that journey starts. As kids, adults often tell us to “chase our dreams” and “use our imaginations” but that quickly changes in adolescence and in adulthood, sadly we are told to “stop dreaming” and to “be realistic” or to “settle down.” Fantine, another character in Les Mis, expresses this in the song “I Dreamed a Dream.”

So the idea of waking up to a new reality and way of being, at any age or season of life—can often be looked upon as silly or impossible.

But I don’t think we’re wired that way—to stay the same or to fit into categories.

I think we’re made to be in a state of constant change or evolution or transformation or whatever word you wish to use. Yes, we are made to keep changing, discovering ourselves, and even changing paths, just as the characters in Les Miserables change perspective about their identities, because eventually, Jean Valjean leaves the prisoner number behind and embraces his new identity, and in doing so, discovers light and realizes that to love another person is in fact to see the face of God.

It is this pursuit of identity and light within that identity that dominates the Gospels. In the Gospel stories about Jesus of Nazareth calling people to follow him, it isn’t as we often paint it in Western culture. It’s not like Jesus was going around converting people to a new religion or recruiting people for some type of church. Instead, Jesus was calling people to be alive, and that meant something different for each person. For those fishing in lakes and rivers and oceans for a living, controlled by a Roman tax system and seeing no other options, Jesus offered them a new perspective about life. Perhaps fishing was not all they were capable of doing. Perhaps there was more to their personal narrative and if they were willing to try a new path, rediscover themselves, well, that new existence could be filled with adventure, gratitude, and love.

See, Jesus said that the time was now, that God’s presence was near, and so people could turn their lives around, and experience good news. So what IS good news?

It’s the news that you’re not done.

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It’s the news that your life is a creative, changing, beautiful chaos of connections, mistakes, joys, sorrows, friendships, epiphanies, and wonder. Many, many people keep looking for their purpose in life. They look in their careers or in their families or in a religion or in other places. None of those pursuits are good or bad as long as “purpose” isn’t limited to those things. The journey and the seasons of life are meant to be fluid, creative, and unpredictable. I know some of us need some control and get anxious when things are not set. But I invite you to be open to the possibility of your life not being set in stone, that your identity can change and so can your perspectives.

You are not just what you do in a job or career. You are not just a mom or dad or a student or a grandparent or a single person. Neither are you limited to just one gender expression or identification, or type of love. You are not boxed in by religion or a church or what some weird pastor says. You’re not the mistakes you’ve made, nor any of the things that caused you pain; not the pieces of the dream left behind; you are light. You are not the color of your eyes nor your skin on the outside, not your age or your bank account. Inside you are all light.

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You are purposefully on a journey of self-discovery. And along the way you will be invited to turn around and experience new perspectives and new people. This is the breath of the Great Spirit, in each and every one of us, moving us and calling us to keep on beginning and failing, to keep on just doing you, going with the flow, gravitating towards love wherever we encounter it. Whatever season of life you are experiencing now, whatever people or society have told you, You are inherently gifted with uniqueness and ability to change, to evolve, to grow. It will look different for each and every one of us. Embrace that. Embrace that change in others.

John 1:43-51

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What things do you notice in everyday life?

Which things do you often miss, go unnoticeable?

When you notice something you didn’t before, how does that change things for you?

I think there is a difference between being noticed and being seen,
would you agree? For example, you go to a social gathering: do you sometimes wish to go unnoticed? At times, when you to the grocery store, are you in a hurry or just not wanting to interact much with people, and so, do you hope that you won’t be noticed?

Some of you reading this often don’t want to be noticed because you always are. That could be because of your appearance, your gender identification or expression, the clothes you wear, or the language you speak. So it makes sense that you sometimes just want to blend in. Being noticed isn’t always that great.

Being seen, though, as you are, and accepted, that is another story. Yes, it’s about vulnerability and that can be scary for some [particularly if you’ve been rejected or shamed]. But I’m referring to the type of seeing that people do when they truly accept you and don’t judge you.

Those moments when you cease to become a minority, a label, or a stereotype. You are known as you are.

In John’s Gospel, people are being seen and also seeing. People are finding Jesus and finding themselves. is an aha moment, unexpected, and also when you find yourself and who you are called to be.

God has chosen to be found, to be known, in the most intimate way possible. God is more than aware of our fears and doubts. In the season of aha/epiphany, Jesus is revealed as a manifestation of the Divine and yet in the most humanly way possible. This is to remind us that we are not just noticed but truly seen and accepted and loved as we are. People, in the Gospel stories, are invited to come and see. We, during this season of aha moments, are invited to see ourselves through the lens of love and fullness. There will be days when you don’t expect to feel full and whole, but then this epiphany comes. The shines on you and in you, and you see—you are loved. You are seen.

In this John story, Jesus notices and sees and calls Philip. Philip finds Nathaniel and tells him the good news, who he has found. Nathaniel, though, steeped in surface-level judgment, sees nothing in Jesus but a Nazarene. What good can come out of such a place? Sound familiar

Anyone from a so-called sh&thole country?

Nathaniel [and I wish the current WH administration] is invited to leave the shadow of the fig tree, stop judging people, and to come and see with new eyes.

Wherever you are in this moment, see people as they are. Accept them. This does not go unnoticed. Much love.

Aha!

Isaiah 60:1-3; 5-6   Matthew 2:1,2   

Image result for epiphanyHave you ever had a moment when things seemed to click for you, when a seemingly unsolvable problem or issue became solvable? Did the hair stand up on your arm? Did you jump up and shout Eureka! or did an imaginary light bulb suddenly appear over your head?

Yes, I’m referring to what are often called Aha Moments. Scientifically, they are known as the eureka effect, “the common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept.”[1] Some researchers also describe this effect as an insight or an epiphany. In 2012, the Merriam-Webster dictionary added “aha moment” to their dictionary, based on Oprah Winfrey’s definition—a moment of sudden realization, inspiration, insight, recognition, or comprehension. Oprah, in her magazine and television show, hosted various guests who shared their aha moments. She said:

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“I always love those moments when I sit down to talk to somebody and they say something that makes me look at life or a situation in a completely different way. And I say, ‘Aha! I get it!’ Light bulb . . . and the little hairs on your arm stand up. That is an aha moment.”

Oprah isn’t the only one to note that aha moments come in all shapes and sizes. Throughout history, there have been many. And they are all unique:

Bill Gates, found of Microsoft, realized that he would never be able to make the computer operating system he wanted unless he sold it first. No one was doing this at the time. So basically, he sold and idea. Aha!

Brian Chesky, Air BnB founder, rented out his air mattress and make money. Aha!

Jan Koum, founder of Whatsapp, could not afford to call his father in the Ukraine. Aha!

Melitta Bentz, in Germany, was tired of bitter, bad-tasting coffee that was brewed in a bag. Coffee filtration was born. Aha!

Caresse Crosby, In NYC, was tired of corsets. So she designed a bra. Aha!

And Doc Brown, the somewhat-mad scientist of the Back to the Future movies, had his aha moment in the bathroom.

Image result for doc brownHe slipped while hanging a clock and hit his head on the sink. This accident led to his idea for the flux capacitor, the thing that would eventually power the DeLorean time machine that would lead Marty McFly to many adventures.

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Can you think of any aha moments in history, or even your own? Where did they happen? What were you doing? What did it lead you to?

January 6th, for Christians around the world, marks the beginning of the Epiphany season—a season that is supposed to stretch all the way until Lent. It is an Aha season for sure, as the word Epiphany, from Greek, means ‘manifestation’ or ‘appearance.’ For Christians, the obvious connection is to Jesus of Nazareth being a manifestation of God. In the Gospel story of Matthew, magi/astrologers from the East seek out Jesus as a small child and bring him gifts. They follow a star to discover Jesus. They consider the light of the star and the light of Jesus to be divine appearances, aha moments. That story of the magi is based on the prophet Isaiah’s writings so long ago—a prophecy about light coming into the world, and of “woke” people honoring that light and bringing gifts.

So in this season of epiphany, how can you and I be more open to aha moments?

There is science behind it. For example, most people would say that they make their best decisions when they are not actively trying to make a choice or solve a problem, right? Usually, it happens when they are taking a shower, driving in a car or riding a train, working out, walking. Aha moments tend to come when we quiet our minds and our consciousness gets a break. Complex problems that are way too big are often only solved by aha moments within a quieted mind and experience. Many, many religious traditions agree with science on this one. Meditation, prayer, fasting, service to others—these are all behavioral practices that can quiet the mind and perhaps lead to aha moments.

But here are some practical ways you can create environments for your own epiphanies and aha moments and manifestations, as per Harvard Business Review:[2]

  1. Quiet yourself [see above]. Step away, find a space, unplug.
  2. Focus on inner thoughts. What are you thinking right now? What’s going on inside you?
  3. Positively approach the problem [mood]. If you feel stuck, do something fun. Laugh. Revisit.
  4. Use less effort/path of least resistance. Animals are great at this.

And now, one fun example, which I’m sure many of you have seen. The problem of nine dots. I’ll use ladybugs, courtesy of the good people at Archimedes-lab.org because ladybugs are more fun.

Your challenge is to draw four straight lines which go through the middle of all of the ladybugs without taking your writing utensil or finger off the screen/paper. Go!

ladybug1How’s it going? Right. It’s hard. So now, try this. Don’t draw straight lines; use curvy lines. Now can you do it?

ladybug2Now, applying that same idea, try to think outside the box. For real. Outside the box. There is no box here. Your lines aren’t limited to a box. Does that help? Did you arrive at this solution?

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You see, sometimes we do get stuck in patterns or reoccurring themes that keep us in a box. We feel limited; we can’t find clarity. Obstacles appear all around. Oftentimes we need an epiphany to wake us up to new opportunities and possibilities.

So friends, may it be so. Find quiet within. Take a step back. Be open to epiphanies.

Who knows what you might discover!

 

 

[1] Auble, P.; Franks, J.; Soraci, S. (1979). “Effort toward comprehension: Elaboration or aha!?”. Memory & Cognition. 7: 426–434.

[2] 4 Steps to Having More “Aha” Moments, David Rock, Josh Davis, Harvard Business Review, October 12, 2016.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, 2 Corinthians 5:17

Many of you are probably familiar with the musical Rent, a rock musical with music, lyrics, and book by Jonathan Larson, loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème. Rent follows the story of a group friends who are mostly young artists struggling to survive in New York City’s East Village in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The setting is a place called Bohemian Alphabet City, and the devastating disease haunting the community is HIV/AIDS.

The opening number of Rent is called Seasons of Love.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?

In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles
In laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life

How about love?
Remember the love
Measure in love
Measure, measure your life in love

This time of the “year” we spend a of time reflecting on the past “year” of five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes. What were those 525,600 moments like for you in 2017? The thing is, have you ever wondered why we say 365 days and 525,600 minutes make a year and why we have to mark each year as something significant?

Some of you may be history buffs, and if you are, you’ll know that calendars have been around for a long, long time.

But it is important to know that the original calendars created by humans were based solely on the position of the sun and the moon; in other words, they were lunisolar calendars. No Google syncing involved with that calendar.

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Much later, the Roman calendar, based on many of these ancient observations of the sun and the moon, was reformed by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE. The main difference was that now the calendar was not based on natural observations of the sun and moon but instead an algorithm of including a leap year every four years. But don’t thank the Romans just yet.

How about the Persians?

In the 11th century, a mathematician, astronomer and poet, Omar Khayyam, in Nishapur [NE Iran], measured the length of a year to be just a few decimal points more than 365 days. His calculation was incredible, considering that it was more accurate than the calendar proposed by Pope Gregory XIII five centuries later! And that’s pretty important to know, because the calendar that the Pope introduced was called the the Gregorian calendar [a refinement of the Julian calendar], and is today in worldwide use as the de facto calendar for secular purposes.

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Meanwhile, in Iran, they continue to follow an observation-based calendar, unlike the Gregorian, which is rule-based. Finally, consider that today seasonal calendars rely on changes in the environment rather than lunar or solar observations. The Islamic and some Buddhist calendars are still lunar, while most modern calendars are solar, based on either the Julian or the Gregorian calendars.

Why does this matter?

Because we’re convinced, in this day and age, that every December 31st a year ends and a new one begins. We go to parties, pay money for champagne or lavish trips; we cry, mourn, regret, kiss, celebrate, and make new year’s resolutions. We seem convinced that we must measure these 525,600 minutes. And it’s often difficult and triggering for many of us.

So what I’d like to do, if just for a moment, is to challenge all of us to ask this question:

Is a year, 365 days, 525,600 minutes, really important?

Must we measure our lives by those moments, already mathematically defined for us?

Or is there something more to this life, to this existence?

Spoiler alert: I think there is more.

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I’m not criticizing anyone who celebrates New Year’s Eve, toasts with champagne, makes, resolutions, etc. Hey, if it’s an excuse to party and have fun, why not? I’m just questioning whether this idea of a “year” and measuring it is healthy and honest. Instead, I’m lifting up another, also ancient idea—that we as creatures of this earth are experiencing seasons.

This is nothing new of course. Ancient writings, including the wisdom literature of the Hebrews, said that everything had a season. There was a time for everything, and it wasn’t based on some calendar approved by some Pope. There was a season for everything.

Being born, dying, planting, harvesting, killing, healing, breaking down, building up, weeping, laughing, mourning, dancing, throwing away stones, gathering stones, embracing, not embracing, seeking, losing, keeping, throwing away, tearing, sewing, keeping silent, speaking, loving, hating, warring, and making peace.

So during this time, when you’re told to mark the beginning of a new year, here’s a better question: what season are you in now? What time is it for you?

And I wonder, what would happen if you measured each season of your life in love?

It’s always a good time to do that, right?

For future reflection/enjoyment: The Rubaiyat-Poem by Omar Khayyam
Translated into English in 1859 by Edward FitzGerald

III.
And, as the Cock crew, those who stood before
The Tavern shouted – ‘Open then the Door!
You know how little while we have to stay,
And, once departed, may return no more.’

  1. Now the New Year reviving old Desires,
    The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires,
    Where the White Hand of Moses on the Bough
    Puts out, and Jesus from the Ground suspires.

VII.
Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly – and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

 

Luke 1:39-41; 46-49; 52,53  

Let’s get this out of the way from the start. I know that for many, the stories about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth carry with them some pretty strong emotions and nostalgia. For some, this story can be confusing, maddening, and perhaps oppressive—depending on how religion [and your family] treated you growing up. I say that right off the bat so we can have an honest [and hopefully healthy] conversation about this story and avoid the common pitfalls around Christmastime. I do my best to present to you facts and background about the Gospel stories so that you can come to your own conclusions. But the main point of all this is not to say which interpretation of a story in the Bible is true or more accurate.

The point of any sacred story is to inspire us to be better people—to love ourselves and to love those around us.

Otherwise, the story has no meaning.

Now that I got that out of the way, let’s dig in to Luke’s story, and remember that I’ll be also discussing the series Stranger Things as part of our reflection. The theme is Love Incarnate in the Upside Down. Incarnate, as a concept, is not some untouchable holy idea, like a shiny white baby with a halo who doesn’t cry or ever commit a sin.

Image result for perfect baby jesus funny
Incarnate means something embodied in flesh; something personified or typified, as a quality or idea; or something represented in a concrete form. So, in this case, we’re talking about two women in Luke’s story [Miriam, called Mary in Greek, and Elizabeth]. Both women were pregnant. The idea, or the thing personified in them is the love and presence of God. Metaphorically, Luke’s story is focused on how the Divine is represented in the lives of the marginalized. In this case, two women—one of them who couldn’t have children [Elizabeth], and one who wasn’t supposed to, Mary.

maryElizArtwork by He Qi 

Luke’s Gospel, written at the tail end of the 1st century in Israel and Palestine, is focused on the theme of God’s salvation story, Divine love in action. Luke’s author focuses on the marginalized of society, specifically, women, the poor, and those stricken with disease or disadvantages. Mary and Elizabeth’s story is the center. Mary/Miriam had little worth according to society. She wasn’t rich, she wasn’t married, she was the last person an angel should visit.

anunciationAnd yet, in Luke’s story, Yahweh values Mary’s life. She’s inspired by this and sings about the stories from the Torah. Yahweh had helped her people the Israelites escape Egypt and oppression. The same would happen now for the poor and lowly, including her. Mary was favored, not because she was pregnant, but because in Luke’s story, the last of society are made to be the first.

Elizabeth’s context is not as humble and certainly not as poor. Was Elizabeth marginalized? Sure, because up to that point she was not able to have children. Sadly, this made her feel isolated and lonely. Of course, that isn’t to say that Elizabeth needed to have a child to have worth. But society sure conditioned her to think that.

I see in Elizabeth and Mary’s story the stories of others who have been told that they don’t have value because of who they love or because they don’t get married or have children. I hear the stories of transgender people who are pressured to conform to their family’s or society’s palatable version of themselves, and if they don’t conform, they are shunned. I hear the stories of children and youth from other countries whose parents came to the U.S. without documentation. The children are called “illegals” and told to “go back” to a country they have never even visited. I hear the stories of the working poor who are called “lazy” while they work three jobs and still can’t pay their bills on time. And I hear the stories of the many people who suffer from mental illnesses and are told by others to “get over it” and yet, every day is a real struggle for them.

And where, in all those stories, is love?

That is the right question to ask.

I’ve been asking this question personally during this past year: where is love personified, incarnate in this upside down world where one tweet can trigger millions and people’s lives are treated like slot machines? An upside down existence when rich and disconnected politicians gamble with the lives of the poor and marginalized? Where is love?

upsideDownteeThis is the question posed in my favorite show of the year, Stranger Things. One of the show’s protagonists is a girl named Eleven; later called by her friend Mike “El,” which means “God” in Hebrew. El’s parallels to Jesus are there.

ELsmilingShe has a mysterious birth story and her true father is never mentioned. El possesses miraculous telekinetic powers. While a prisoner in a government laboratory, she is tempted to use her super powers to kill a cat; she refuses. Later on in the story, El spends time in the wilderness and is sustained only by her manna which is actually Eggo waffles.

ElEGGOS

And finally, El visits the Upside Down dimension and discovers a monster, the Demogorgon. She lays in a cruciform position, arms spread, in a pool of water.

ELcrucifixShe descends into a mental state where she faces the monster and death. She cries out for God and then hears Joyce’s voice [Winona Ryder], saying: “I am here with you.”

You see, in the story of Stranger Things, love can be found even in the Upside Down, even in the midst of darkness and horror. Where is love incarnate? In the presence of those who accept us as we are and in those we can truly call friends. Mike, Dustin, Will, Lucas, El, Joyce, Sheriff Hopper, Jonathan, Bob, Max, Kali, Steve, and Nancy become friends, but not out of convenience or sameness. Their unlikely community forms out of marginalization, suffering, and uncertainty. They form bonds of self-sacrificing love and stand with each other when it is unpopular and inconvenient.

And that’s just it, isn’t it? We can ask this question: where is love? Where is God in this upside down world? And we won’t find the answer in a religion or in money or in power or in isolation. We find love incarnate in each other, when we truly accept each other and stand up for each other on the margins. We discover love incarnate when we help others realize their value, when we don’t give up the fight against oppression and injustice, when we take risks for others out of love.

May we be love incarnate in this, the Upside Down. And may you discover love in others.

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